Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
I had occasion this week to reflect on the scripture appointed for Ember days. They are special days of prayer and fasting that fall in quarterly cycles through the church calendar, usually to line up with seasonal changes. In the modern church, Ember Days are used to call focus and prayer to especially to vocations in the church, to remind those in the ordination process to write a letter to their bishop on how seminary is going, and usually when ordinations take place.
You might think that the fourth and final Sunday of Advent is a weird time to bring up vocations. We have finally come through the long diatribe of apocalyptic warnings and John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. It’s time to talk about gearing up for Christmas, isn’t it? Time to be thinking about little baby Jesus, shepherds, caroling, mincemeat pies. Well, yes, and our Gospel reading points us that direction a bit today. But the readings, especially in conjunction with Embertide, remind us of our call as Christians to labor for God.
Today as we turn our focus towards Mary, the mother of God, and the angel Gabriel arriving to bring her this news, I think that considering how we discern our own callings and vocations in life is entirely appropriate. The reading we hear from Second Samuel starts us thinking about what we do for God and showcases how the relationship between us and God is different than anything the world had seen before that.
The gods of the ancient world were characterized as petty, almost human figures that required any number of gifts, goods, and temples. So of course King David decides he needs to do something for God, now that his house is established, as he relaxes in his cedar building. But God, who has done all of this for David as promised, says instead that he is going to do more for David, to establish his house or rather his line as one of great importance forever.
God does not require things. The creator of the Universe does not need us to give small pieces of his creation back to him. In that way God does not need David to create a temple, David needs to make a temple for God. So through the prophet Nathan, God shows David that providing purpose, call, blessing to the house of David is what God will do instead of allowing David to build this temple. We know that David never succeeds in the endeavor. It is Solomon, his son, who builds the first temple.
The point of all this is that in the midst of our human frailty, our error, our inability to achieve perfection, God still calls us to work, and still bestows blessings on us. Those blessings are not borne out of what we can give God, because frankly we can’t give God anything he couldn’t already have if it was really of importance. Instead, what God asks from us, and hopefully we offer in return, is our work, our dedication, using our free will to follow the call that God has put out to us. Just like vocation, discerning where and to what God is calling you is one of the more important tasks of devotion for Christians.
Take King David for example. He was an incredibly flawed person. His rule was tenuous; his family was an absolute mess. Trust me, if you are bored of soap operas or have finished the current season of The Mandalorian, sit down with your bible and read Second Samuel and First Kings. The rise and fall of King David and his family will keep you occupied. Here’s the thing though: even with a really messed up dynasty, even with a flawed king whose family rule would end in ashes in just another generation, God still promises that David’s house will be something very special. God still has plans, still has a call for them. Even this moment points us forward to the messiah to come, a reminder that the mercy of God does not depend on human virtue.
So then, in a time and place that seemed drained of so much hope, a place with no prophet for over 200 years, an angel of the Lord appears to Mary. I appreciate that angels almost always start their conversations with a reassurance to not be afraid. Classical Euro-centric art has done us no favors in depicting angels as beautiful human figures with wings, or cute little cherub babies. Biblically speaking, angels NEED to offer reassurance first. By every account we have of their description they are a mess of wings and eyes, light, sound; basically a confusing terror to your average human.
The Rev’d Fleming Rutledge writes, “Angels are not pretty or cute. Angels are powerful, and there is nothing more frightening than power when you don’t know if it is against you or for you. As Emily Dickinson suggested, angels are bisecting messengers, cleaving between truth and falsehood, life and death, mercy and judgment.” Angels are the messengers which reveal the Glory of God to us. That sounds like it would be pretty overwhelming. So they remind us, be not afraid.
The angel comes to Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” In our Wednesday Bible Study class this week we discussed this moment, this Annunciation, and Mary’s response to it. There are hundreds of artist representations of this event. Each one shows a unique way in which Mary might respond. Some depict her scared, others curious, and others doubtful. Mary is portrayed anywhere from adulthood to childhood. But we don’t get to see a real picture, we only have the narrative, the Gospel, to tell us what she says.
Mary counters the angel’s claim, pointing out that she is a virgin. Maybe she’s confused, maybe she’s doubtful. Maybe she’s pretty sure the angel has the wrong house. But at the same time she is responding initially in this way, the full response she gives the angel, what we now call the Magnificat, or the Song of Mary, that we recited in place of a Psalm today, is her recognition and agreement that she will indeed take on the work of birthing God into the flesh of the world. She will become the Mother of God, and for some, this is Mary also acknowledging the pain and loss that will come at the end of her son’s ministry on earth.
Mary recognizes her call. It may not be what she expected or thought her life was going to look like. But when does call ever do that? I remember when I was at the University of Oregon working on my Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies. When someone in my family (usually some older, distant relation) would learn what my major was, they would get all excited and smiling ask me if I was going to become a preacher. I would, looking down my nose at them, inform the person that not only was I not ever going to be a preacher, but my study of religion was academic, not theological, and moreover it was focused on Asian religions. Had an angel of the Lord showed up then to tell me I was going to be called to be a priest, I wonder if I wouldn’t have answered the exact same way.
Often God’s calls do not fit with what our image of reality or future is. Sometimes God’s promises don’t make sense…certainly in the case of King David and his messed up family, to think that everlasting glory was going to come of that line would have been laughable. But God’s call to all of us remains steadfast. I believe we all have a call, and how we respond to that is so incredibly important. This isn’t just the general call to get out into the fields, as Jesus would say, but about how you fit into the body of Christ, with the gifts that you have been given.
Advent is an in-between time. As Fleming Rutledge puts it, “placed as it is between the now of human failure and the not-yet of God’s coming Kingdom.” We have seen that Kingdom, make no mistake of that. But it has yet to be fulfilled for us. So our work continues. Our call continues. It is our task to listen for God’s message, whether that is in a whisper or in a terrifying celestial messenger that needs to remind you not to be afraid. Because our call is part of this human story we are telling. Our call is part, whether large or small, of the promises made by God. This is not about our hope that we are not alone, or that there is a higher purpose. This is God’s promise, God’s call, and ultimately the glory of God’s kingdom to come that is signified by the birth we are about to celebrate in five days.